The United States gave birth to the internet. The internet grew up, and grew up fast, and now it’s left the house. Meanwhile, some U.S. politicians are doing their best to re-exert control over their precious child. But on March 10, 2016, the internet disowned its parent. These politicians, most of whom are Republicans, are not pleased — and they’re pulling out all the stops to regain dominance.
ICANN — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which sounds like something George Saunders would’ve invented — has long been responsible for maintaining the internet as we know it. The U.S.’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) ruled over ICANN, and ICANN ruled over the internet.
People debate the extent of this power. Without the NTIA, ICANN, and the Internet Assigned Numbers Association (IANA), domain permutations could’ve been innumerable: instead of the memorizable, familiar .coms and .orgs, we’d have to navigate through a haystack of dot-anythings. Plus, the internet was once known as “the web” for good reason: it’s fragile, complicated, and easy to tangle up. ICANN was designed, among its other functions, to keep it from so tangling. And to ensure that when you navigate to inverse-dot-com, say, you actually wind up at inverse-dot-com.
For almost two decades, a United States non-profit ran ICANN. Many non-Americans argue that this power provided the country with an unfair advantage: as the web continued to blast off, the America controlled the throttle. Then, in 2014, to most of the world’s delight, President Barack Obama announced that America would be at last giving up those controls. For two years, Republicans like Newt Gingrich took up arms to stifle the ICANN transfer:
But in March 2016, the ICANN transfer was finalized. It’s set to go into effect on September 30, 2016, right before the U.S. presidential election. Private, so-called multi-stakeholders from more than 150 nations will take over. One might believe that privatization would go over well with Republicans. It hasn’t. Ted Cruz found a soapbox, and he’s showing no signs of giving it up before September. He’s even released melodramatic videos:
He’s been fighting the somewhat dubious fight for several months. Back in February, Cruz sent a letter to then-ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé. He was not pleased that Chehadé had been meeting with the Chinese at their World Internet Conference. The Chinese have proven themselves to be pretty anti-net-neutrality over the years, so it was an easy criticism. Cruz didn’t hear back, so he sent a follow-up letter. Chehadé has since moved on from his ICANN post, but Cruz continues to argue against the slated transfer.
Cruz, along with Wisconsin U.S. Representative Sean Duffy, introduced a bill — the Protecting Internet Freedom Act — that aims to halt the transfer. Their argument is lamentably shallow: they claim that the mere introduction of Chinese and Russian players into the internet maintenance game gravely endangers free speech and free enterprise. There’s a slim chance that Cruz et al. are right — that empowering powerful Chinese or Russian actors is a bad move — but those who are in favor of the transfer are quick to point out that these actors will need to overcome, seduce, outsmart, or circumvent the hundred-plus other representatives to have any noticeable effect. And even if they succeeded, ICANN advocates argue, they’d hardly be capable of achieving much in the way of censorship.
Cruz is unconvinced. “This is an omelet that will be very difficult to unscramble,” he said earlier this month. He’s adamant that ICANN is a bad move, and that it will function as a virtual, “mini United Nations” — an organization that, in his eyes, works to thwart U.S. supremacy. “For anyone who wants a chilling example of where this ends up, I would encourage everyone here to go back and read George Orwell’s classic 1984,” Cruz said. “At the time it was written, it was meant to be futuristic. Big Brother censoring speech, defining speech.” Like any parent, he’s nervous about what will happen to what he takes his child out in the great, wide world. Until September 30, he’s sure to keep on shouting about how Obama, in this regard, screwed America over.
Cruz is not sure why Democrats aren’t joining Republicans in the fight. “This should be an issue that brings everyone together,” he said. “There was a time when Democrats considered themselves champions of civil liberty. There was a time when Democrats considered themselves the defenders of the First Amendment and free speech. Where are the Democrats standing up and saying ‘we don’t want the Internet censored by Russia, and China, and Iran’?”
The Republicans, meanwhile, have made it one of this year’s platform tenets. “The survival of the internet as we know it is at risk,” the manifesto states. “The internet’s independence is its power. It has unleashed innovation, enabled growth, and inspired freedom more rapidly and extensively than any other technological advance in human history. We will therefore resist any effort to shift control toward governance by international or other intergovernmental organizations.”
Assuming that nothing about the transfer changes, time will tell whether he and his fellow Republicans were right — or whether, instead, they served as yet more paranoid helicopter parents.